This year’s Christmas brought a “surprise” in Nepal. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), which won only 32 seats in the 275-member lower house of parliament in the recent general election, was appointed prime minister after he secured the support of seven parties, including the party led by arch-rival Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).
Sher Bahadur Deuba, who believes that he is destined to be the prime minister of Nepal seven times and was expecting to be the premier for the sixth time, was left out to dry, although his party, the Nepali Congress (NC), won the largest number of seats.
The timely election and selection of the prime minister is an achievement for Nepal’s nascent democratic process. Yet, the formation of the government reeks of a democratic deficit. CPN-MC, which stood a distant third and won only 11 percent of the votes, will lead a government that excludes the largest party. Nepal’s parties have ignored the “mandate of the people.”
As expected, the November 20 election produced a fractured result. The NC emerged as the largest party, winning 89 seats in the federal parliament. CPN-UML, CPN-MC, the National Independent Party (NIP), and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) rounded off the top five, winning 78, 32, 20, and 14 seats, respectively. The newly-elected parliamentarians took the oath of office on December 22.
Parties had jostled for electoral alliances before the elections. Two major alliances contested the polls: a five-party ruling coalition led by the NC, which included Dahal’s CPN-MC, and the opposition coalition led by the CPN-UML. As the election results started to pour in, leaders of political parties engaged in negotiations on government formation. Deuba was confident that the ruling coalition would endure. Dahal repeated the same in public until he made a volte-face at the eleventh hour on December 25.
Primarily, two parties were vocal about their claim to lead the government: NC and CPN-MC. Within the NC, Deuba was challenged by a young leader, Gagan Thapa. While Gagan Thapa remains popular among the general populace and represents the change of generation from the old to young leaders, Deuba has a significant numerical advantage within the NC. Thus, the NC elected Deuba as the leader of the parliamentary party, who is also the party’s prime ministerial candidate, over Thapa by 64-29 votes. Meanwhile, the CPN-MC selected Dahal unopposed.
With this, the contest narrowed down to one between Deuba and Dahal. The two leaders had agreed to take turns leading the government, but neither was willing to concede the chance to lead the government first. Deuba felt he had the natural claim to the leadership first because his party was the largest by a mile, and he was confident that Dahal and Oli would not get back together. Dahal claimed it was his turn after Deuba led the government from 2021 to 2022.
Meanwhile, Dahal was engaging Oli’s CPN-UML through his trusted lieutenants. Oli was waiting in the wings to drive a wedge in the ruling coalition.
The president invited leaders to claim premiership with majority support by December 25. Deuba was steadfast in his claim of the premiership as the day loomed. Then, Dahal left the coalition and indicated his ditching of the alliance, saying it had “lost its relevance.”
The next day, Dahal received the support of the seven parties, including the CPN-UML, to become the prime minister for the third time. So it is déjà vu, and 2017 again, though the left parties have weakened significantly and needed support from newer parties.
Politics has created strange bedfellows in Nepal in the past. However, this coalition trumps them all.
Besides the CPN-MC and CPN-UML, the coalition includes the four-month-old NIP, the conservative RPP, Madhes-based Janata Samjbadi Party-Nepal (JSP-N) and Janamat Party (JP), and ethnic Nagarik Unmukti Party (NUP) as well as three independent members of the parliament.
Among the coalition partners, the CPN-MC and the CPN-UML largely share common agenda. They were instrumental in introducing federalism and making Nepal a secular state. However, Oli has has indicated his aversion to federalism and secularism in recent times. At a personal level, Oli and Dahal share a tumultuous relationship.
If the two communist parties are from Venus, other coalition partners are from Mars. NIP ran on a “no, not again” platform, attempting to usurp anti-establishment votes. NIP’s leader, Rabi Lamichhane, had said that he would not be a part of any government led by the establishment leaders. The RPP ran on the agenda of reviving constitutional monarchy and the Hindu state. NIP and RPP seek to undo the provincial structure. JP contested against the JSP-N, accusing the latter of ignoring the Madhesi people’s issues in their lust for power. NUP ran on an anti-establishment platform, arguing that the Tharu community in the mid-Terai needed to be freed from the establishment’s control.
The coalition partners have come together in their lust for power. There is bare-knuckle bargaining going on for ministerial portfolios and other political appointments, including in provinces. It can be seen in Lamichhane’s appointment as the deputy prime minister and home minister. There is a court petition against Lamichhane, a Nepali citizen-turned U.S. citizen-turned Nepali citizen, regarding his citizenship. Yet, he now leads the ministry which issues the citizenship certificate. It symbolizes that the coalition is devoid of ethics too.
Given the breadth of the coalition, Dahal’s focus will be to maintain his hold on power. He will lead the government for at least two years, for the constitution mandates that a no-confidence motion cannot be introduced against a prime minister for two years. However, we can expect a revolving door for the ministerial portfolios. The council of ministers will likely report to their party leaders, not necessarily to the prime minister, weakening the government. It will be a huge miracle if there is a smooth transfer of power to Oli after two years. It will not be a surprise if a new coalition emerges then.
China and India quickly offered “warm congratulations” to the new Prime Minister.
Some Indian analysts believed New Delhi was readying to welcome Deuba as the prime minister. Others, such as former Indian envoy to Nepal Ranjit Roy, had expressed the need for India to engage all parties, big and small. Nepal’s relations with India had normalized under the Deuba-government after it had hit a new low during Oli’s tenure over Nepal’s new map in 2020.
New Delhi is not very fond of Dahal. In its early stages, his party called India an “expansionist” force. He has accused New Delhi of orchestrating his ouster from prime ministership in 2008 and insinuated that New Delhi plotted to kill him. However, he has changed his tune in recent times. During his visit to New Delhi earlier this year, he visited the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters. He met with many senior leaders although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed him. However, New Delhi still considers Dahal unreliable.
Meanwhile, China could not have been happier at the moment. China had nudged CPN-MC and CPN-UML for a communist unification in 2017 and had tried its best to keep the unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) together when it was on the verge of splitting at the end of 2020. Beijing was less engaged this time but will cheer the communist-plus coalition.
Deuba, known in Beijing as a pro-India leader, cold shouldered the Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, arguing that he prefers grants to loans. Deuba led the ratification of the $500 million American grant, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), despite vocal Chinese opposition. He has been wary of the Chinese Communist Party as it has invested in party-to-party relations with Nepal’s communist parties.
Dahal shares a better relationship with Nepal’s northern neighbor. His fondness for China will be of concern to the U.S. American engagement in Nepal has increased tremendously in recent years and could slow down during Dahal’s term.
However, Dahal has been pragmatic, if unimaginative, about Nepal’s relations with the two neighbors and the U.S. He has been in politics and power long enough to understand the importance of all three major powers and their interests in Nepal. Therefore, we may not see any significant turn in foreign policy like he frequently does in national politics.
In saying that, the new government has a gamut of issues that require immediate attention. The Deuba-led government had put off the difficult decision on the Agnipath scheme of recruiting soldiers in India. Dahal will have to deal with that controversial issue now. Border disputes with India and China need his immediate attention too. The most pressing will be how Nepal engages India, China, and the U.S. amidst the Sino-Indian regional tension and the Sino-American global tussle. It will also be the issue with the most far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s security.
Dahal has shown his Machiavellian nature to grab leadership at home. We will find out if he can pull out a “surprise” in Nepal’s foreign policy.